After months of partisan sniping, the great earmarks debate in Congress may be collapsing in a marriage of political convenience between conservatives and leading Democrats.
Late Monday, presidential candidate, quickly followed by rival , joined Senate efforts to ban all such home-state projects next year, and the anti-pork camp also hopes to pick up some unexpected help from a third Democrat: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The back-to-back endorsements mean the entire presidential field will be on board the budget amendment already co-sponsored by the likely Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen.. Pelosi has not yet gone so far as to embrace such a broad moratorium on earmarks, but she also has signaled a growing weariness with the debate and a desire to take the issue off the table going into the November elections.
Senate sponsors are expected to need 60 votes to prevail, and senior members in both parties are opposed. But even opponents agreed Monday night that the Democratic endorsements - coupled with any movement by Pelosi - could tip the scales.
"This week could be the biggest opportunity to change the culture of earmarks we ever have had," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a lead sponsor of the Senate budget amendment.
Pelosi was to meet with her leadership late Monday. But in a brief interview last Thursday night, the speaker said she thought it would be "appropriate" to make a decision on the earmark question before the House takes up its budget this week.
At this stage, Democrats don't expect to offer a budget amendment equivalent to the Senate's, but one option would be for the speaker to announce that the House won't include spending earmarks in any of the appropriations bills sent to President Bush. Old friends on the House Appropriations Committee are cool to this idea, but Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a member of the panel and a Pelosi ally, said the earmark debate had become a "distraction" from bigger issues for voters.
"I have said I'm losing patience with earmarks, and we'll see how serious and mature Republicans are going to be about the issue," Pelosi said. "It's not a question of a moratorium. It's a question of what the appropriations process is going to look like this year, and that's what we're going to be talking about."
Right now, that appropriations process - the 12 annual bills that fund the government's daily operations - looks very much like a repeat of the stalemate seen last year. And many would argue that that's the real reason the leadership can afford to be so "reform-minded."
The Senate and House resolutions would add between $18 billion and about $22 billion to the president's requests. With the White House threatening to veto individual spending bills, Democrats are already discussing stopgap bills to keep agencies operating until a new president is chosen.
Nonetheless, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.) is cool to giving up all earmarks, and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said Congress was rushing to give up a responsibility that is fundamental to its charter under the Constitution.
"This is the business we're in," Murtha said. And after making reforms last year that both cut the number of projects and introduced more transparency, critics argue that the leadership is being stampeded for only political reasons.
"In my home state, we know what happens when federal agencies make all the decisions. … The money goes elsewhere," to more densely populated areas, said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, who represents rural North Dakota. "The problem is, there has been abuse [of earmarks]. I don't think the answer is to eliminate all congressionally directed funding. … I resent the suggestion that anybody who did earmarks has some sort of corruption."
In a statement from his Senate office, Obama said that even with the reforms made in the past year, "I have come to believe that the system is broken.
"We can no longer accept a process that doles out earmarks based on a member of Congress' seniority, rather than the merit of the project. We can no longer accept an earmarks process that has become so complicated to navigate that a municipality or nonprofit group has to hire high-priced D.C. lobbyists to do it. And we can no longer accept an earmarks process in which many of the projects being funded fail to address the real needs of our country."
By David Rogers